Six degrees of separation

My brother, David Silver, is panning out to be one of the significant players in the world of artificial intelligence. His PhD topic was applying reinforcement learning to the oriental strategy game of Go, and he has gone on to be the lead researcher on AlphaGo at Google DeepMind. That is the program that last year beat the world champion human player and became the best computer player of Go. More recently AlphaZero has taught itself to play Go from scratch (AlphaGo started by learning from thousands of top level human games) and has also taught itself to play chess and shogi, all to unprecedented levels of excellence. It has been very exciting following his progress, and going to the premier of the documentary film about AlphaGo (which is a lovely human drama, even if you don’t know or care much about the technology, so do give it a watch on netflix/prime/google play/itunes if you get the chance).

It is no surprise to me that David has gone on to find a niche that is intellectually impressive, as he has always been a pretty smart guy and done exceptionally well in education (though reassuringly he isn’t all that practical, makes the same silly mistakes as the rest of us, and has remained quite down to earth). I’ve always been glad to be the older sibling, as I think it would have been difficult to follow in his footsteps. As it was, I could be proud of my relative achievements before he came along and beat them all! He has always had a very analytical mind and enjoys solving logical puzzles. I guess I do too in some ways, but I’m much more interested in how people work than complicated mathematical calculations, and how we can reduce suffering and help people recover from trauma, rather than pushing the boundaries of technology. We’ve chosen quite different career directions, but I think we still have quite similar underlying values and ethics.

Although I’m proud of him, I’m not mentioning my brother’s achievements to show off (after all, I can take no credit for them) but because they’ve given me cause for reflection. Firstly, it would be easy to feel inadequate by comparison. After all, he is making headlines and working on the frontiers of technology, whilst I’m just a clinician running a tiny company and have made relatively little impact to date. It would be easy to be jealous of the financial security, publications and plaudits that he has got. He has made the news all around the world, and even has a wikipedia page! But I think I’d find that spotlight uncomfortable, and I suspect I’d find his job pretty stressful, as well as finding all the maths and computing pretty boring and unfulfilling. So whilst there is plenty to admire, I don’t really envy him and wouldn’t want to swap places.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly in terms of this blog, it has made me think about what my goals are. Making the best possible AI to play Go is quite a narrow and specific goal, and within that he selected a specific methodology with reinforcement learning, and he has focused on that for the past decade, before looking at what other applications the same system might have. Yet in that same time period I’ve been pulled in many different directions. I’ve been an NHS CAMHS clinician and service manager. I’ve been an at home mum. I’ve helped to found a parenting charity. I’ve set up and evaluated a project to improve outcomes for diabetes patients. I’ve bid for grants. I’ve tried to help recruit psychologists and improve clinical services within a children’s home company. I’ve undertaken specialist assessments of complex cases. I’ve been an expert witness to the family courts. I’ve delivered training. I’ve run a small therapy service. I’ve conducted research. I’ve tried to influence policy, and sat on committees. I’ve written a book about how to care for children affected by poor attachments and trauma. And I’ve developed outcome measures. Most of the time I’ve done several of these things in parallel. It is hard to keep so many plate spinning, and means I have not been able to invest my full energy in the things I most want to do. I’ve also had hesitations about investing in entrepreneurial ideas, because of guilt about saying no to other stuff, or fear that it won’t pay off  that have taken a really long time to shake off.

Greg McKeown says in his brilliant articles for Harvard Business Review about ‘essentialism’, that success can bring on demands that cause you to diversify, and ultimately reduce your focus on your primary goal and cause failure, and that is exactly what I’ve experienced. It reminded me of a reflective exercise I did as a trainee on a workshop about creative methods, where I made an amoeba shape out of clay to represent the pulls I felt in different directions. The amoeba was a resonant image for me as it can’t spread too thin without losing its depth at the centre, and it can’t travel in two directions at once. Finding the right direction of travel and resisting other pulls on my time is something I am still working on 20 years later! It has been a growth curve to learn what to say ‘no’ to so that the company does not become overloaded or incoherent*. There are also other forces that influence what a small business can deliver – we have to do work that we are passionate about, uniquely skilled to deliver and that there is a market for. There is no point offering services that nobody wants to buy, or that other people can provide better, or that you are not enthusiastic about, so we need to stick to things that we can deliver brilliantly and build a positive reputation for. However, with the breadth of clinical psychology there will always be multiple demands and opportunities, and it is necessary to find a focus so that we have a single defined goal** in order to attain the most success.

I’ve taken time to refine my goal from “applying clinical psychology to complicated children and families facing adversity” (which is actually quite a broad remit, and includes a wide range of neurodevelopmental, mental health, physical health and social aspects of adversity, being applied to all sorts of different people) to “applying clinical psychology knowledge to improving services for Looked After and adopted children” to “using outcome measurement tools developed through my knowledge of clinical psychology with placement providers and commissioners to improve outcomes for Looked After and adopted children”. Likewise, it has taken me time to clear space in my head and in my diary, and to be in good enough physical health to give it sufficient time and energy. But I am finally able to dedicate the majority of my working time to making people aware of BERRI, doing the statistical analysis to validate and norm it, and supporting/training those who subscribe to it. I have secured an honorary research fellowship at UCL and some data analyst support, and a trainee from Leicester is making it the subject of her doctoral research, so I very much hope that 2018 will be the year that we publish a validation of the measure and methodology, and can then roll it out more widely. I believe that is my best chance to make a difference in the world – to improve the standards of care for children living outside of their family of origin by encouraging universal psychological screening, regular outcome measurement, and the ability to identify and track needs over time.

Finally, my brother’s achievements have given me pause for thought because him working at Google has made me feel a sense of being somehow distantly connected to silicon valley, and all the technological and entrepreneurial activity that goes on there. Suddenly the people who founded Google, Facebook and Tesla/SpaceX are no longer as abstract as Hollywood actors or international politicians, but are now three steps away in a technology game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon. It makes the world feel a little smaller and making an impact seem more possible, when your kid brother is connected (however peripherally) to the technology giants who are changing the world.

Alongside this, in my ImpactHub coaching peer group several people have gone on to make successful social businesses that have rapidly scaled and made an impact on the world. Proversity for example, have expanded massively into the digital education space. Old Spike Roastery & Change Please have expanded their coffee businesses that employ homeless people, and School Space have scaled up a project they started at the age of 17 to help their school rent out its premises out of hours into a thriving business that has generated £350,000 of income for participating schools. Code Club have partnered with the Raspberry Pi Foundation to teach children in 10,000 clubs in 125 countries all around the world to program computers. And Party for the People have made a competitor for TicketMaster or SeeTickets where the fees go to a good cause, and have set up arts spaces in old factory buildings.

In this context, it seems possible to dream big, to think that an idea could become a reality that has an impact on the world. So whilst my main vocation remains to bring the process of regular outcome measurement to services for Looked After Children (and that is making some really positive steps at the moment), I’ve started to work out how to make my back-burner project a reality. This one is a proper entrepreneurial idea in the digital space and tied in a little to my previous blog topic of the issue of how the public understand the evidence for different kinds of interventions. I’m hoping I can develop a pilot and then seek some investment, so watch this space as I’ll report back how it goes.

In the meanwhile, I still want to make some changes in my personal life. I’m generally feeling quite upbeat about the future at the moment, and I’ve sorted out the issues I mentioned in a prior blog about disappointment. We’ve also pulled in payment for many of the outstanding invoices, and the business is the best organised it has ever been. But after reviewing how I spend my time and who I interact with the most, I have become much more aware of my various different networks, and to what degree I feel able to express myself authentically within them. I am being a bit more thoughtful about my networks, both in real life (where I want to make greater efforts to meet like-minded people locally) and online, where I need to spend less time (and I’ve recognised my shamefully judgemental feelings of rage and disgust when interacting with people using image filters, especially those that put puppy ears and noses onto reshaped faces with features made to conform with patriarchal standards of beauty). I have realised that I haven’t been choosing the company I keep well enough, so I am trying to connect more  with those who are positive influences on my life, and to pull away from people who are a drain on my emotional resources. I am also choosing to engage more with people in the social entrepreneurial space. As Jim Rohn is much cited as saying “you are the average of the five people you most associate with” and hanging out with inspiring people allows us to be more creative and entrepreneurial ourselves.

So hopefully 2018 will be the year where I make a success of BERRI, complete the validation research and get some publications out. I’d also like to get a pilot of my entrepreneurial idea up and running. And in my personal life I’d like to get back to the gym, to get the planning permissions sorted out for my house, and most importantly to make more real life social connections with people who share my values. If I’m only a few degrees of separation from people who have achieved all of these things, then maybe I can too.

 

*I wrote more about developing my business model and setting up a social enterprise in clinical psychology forum number 273 in Sept 2015

**or failing that, a primary goal, secondary goal and fall-back plan, in ranked order of preference (with an awareness than only exceptional polymaths like Elon Musk can achieve in more than one area at the same time).

If you build it they will come: The impact of making space in my professional life

When my personal development coach told me that the first steps towards having a happier working life and better work life balance were to a) figure out what I wanted to do most and b) clear out some space in my life for it to fit into, that seemed a bit back to front and almost too obvious.

Although I’ve always known that I want to apply clinical psychology to helping the most complex children and families, I felt a real lack of clarity about what I wanted to do. I think in retrospect this was because I’d originally envisaged nothing more creative than a career in CAMHS in the NHS. But even once I was outside the NHS I still felt this lack of vision for my ideal future, perhaps because I wanted to choose it from the options available to me, and I hadn’t explored what those might be very far beyond returning to the NHS or continuing what I was doing already (court expert witness work, with a side helping of trying to influence policy and practise by being involved with national committees, standards groups and supporting the next generation of CPs).

I had also internalised the idea that the right process was to build up my investment of time in what I wanted to do more, until that took off and allowed me to do less of the other stuff. I felt like clearing out space from my established work streams was of no value (or even a potential risk to my income) unless I had figured out what I wanted to do, or ideally created the alternative channels already. But slowly I realised that if all my time and energy was being consumed by my current workload, then there was no capacity to imagine anything better, to seek out any opportunities or plan any change, and I’d still be overloading myself and worrying about my work life balance in a year from now, or five, or ten.

So I decided to take a gamble and cut down my work commitments for a while and give myself thinking space to figure it out. Of course, being me, I took on the new part-time consulting role that was going to pay the bills whilst giving me time to think before I had managed to reduce my existing workload. So I had six months in which I had to overlap this new role with my all my ongoing court and committee work, before I was able to wind them down very much at all, and then a minor RTA to contend with (see previous blog). So I sure didn’t take the easy route to cutting down.

But the physical jolt was the final straw to help me to realise that I needed to change my work patterns and I have been able to spend more time with my family, and have now stepped down from almost all of my committee roles. This is an enormous change after 4 or 5 years on the BPS CYPF committee, nearly double that of being involved with CPLAAC, and more recently being part of the BPS/FJC standards group for psychology experts to the family court and the NICE guidance development group for attachment interventions, and a rep from the BPS to BAAF. I am now at the very tail end of the court work, with just three small pieces of work to complete (each an addendum to prior work or work that was delayed after I agreed to complete it) and a couple of single days in court.

Although my time is still very fraught for another couple of weeks and we will then segue into Christmas (meaning my winding down schedule will have taken me almost a year to achieve), I’ve managed to get onto some tasks I have been avoiding for a long time. I’ve started to work my way through the financial tangles that constantly stop things running smoothly – this is mainly the enormous pile of unpaid invoices where parties to court work have disputed their share, gone bust, or just not paid for years and years, but also includes the un-invoiced work that we have completed, expenses I have not claimed back from the company, and the administrative task of reconciling our records with the bank statements. My team have stepped up to help me and as I have made sense of it bit by bit it feels like that tangle is turning into a single logical thread I can follow and wind up as I go.

As I sort and put away the clutter that consumes my time and energy step by step, I am starting to feel less overwhelmed by running the business. As the volume of court work I undertake reduces, so does the emotional weight of the work. And as the burden I am carrying gets lighter, psychologically at least, some small gaps between the demands on my time and energy are already starting to appear. Into those gaps has come the beginnings of the vision I lacked of where I want to take my career in the future, and what kind of life I want.

I’m sure I’ll talk more about that next time. But for now I just wanted to share that it feels great to put down some of the load I have been carrying, to untangle the frustrating little issues that have been tying me up, and to create space for the stuff that I care about the most. With the help of a new business mentor I’ve been able to connect with the motivation that started me on this journey, and to finally work out where I want to go both personally and professionally. And that makes all the steps I have to take to get there much clearer.

I made the space, and sure enough, the goals of how I want to fill it have come to me.